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How millions of black and Asian men were mobilised in first world war

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent
·3-min read

As well as a struggle for European dominance, the first world war was a battle for control of colonial possessions, not least in Africa, where western powers including Britain, Germany and France embroiled around 2 million people in the conflict as soldiers or labourers. It is estimated that 10% of them died.

The Indian army provided Britain with more than 1.2 million men. Its soldiers were deployed to all the main theatres of war and made up two-thirds of all the manpower serving in Mesopotamia, modern Iraq. Casualties ran high. More than half of British India’s 3,000 combatants at Gallipoli died.

Related: UK inquiry blames ‘pervasive racism’ for unequal commemoration of black and Asian troops

More than 16,000 men from the British Caribbean, many of them descendants of British slave trading, served in the British West Indies Regiment in Europe, Egypt, Palestine, sub-Saharan Africa and Mesopotamia.

All in all, well over 4 million black and Asian men were mobilised into the European and American armies, according to British Library research.

Many were conscripted or coerced, particularly in Egypt and the colonies of east and west Africa, according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. This could involve threats and even kidnappings. In Egypt alone, it has been suggested by the historian David Killingray that three-quarters of the 327,000 men who served were recruited forcibly.

Large numbers of conscripts in Africa were used as part of a human supply chain in “carrier corps”, which took a huge toll that the lack of adequate memorials can make hard to calculate.

The Giza Memorial in Egypt commemorates all the missing of the Egyptian Labour Corps and Camel Transport Corps, but without their names or even a suggestion of the number lost. A number of recent estimates have placed this figure at upwards of 10,000, according to the commission.

No such imprecision is required to count the dead from Britain, who were carefully logged and remembered on individual gravestones and memorials up and down the country and in carefully tended cemeteries around the world.

A key founding principle of the War Graves Commission was that “all, whatever their military rank or position in civil life, should have equal treatment in their graves”. But after the war ended there was a stark contrast between the effort put into locating and concentrating graves on the western front and in east Africa.

By June 1919, 15,000 labourers had been recruited by the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries to work on exhumations in France and Belgium, according to the commission. The unit for east Africa had just six officers and 130 staff members covering more than 650,000 square miles of seven countries.

In the Gold Coast (now Ghana), Nigeria and Sierra Leone, no African fatality of the first world war is commemorated with a headstone.

Prof Michèle Barrett, of Queen Mary University London, found a document from the British graves registration organisation in what is now Kenya from the early 1920s that said: “Most of the natives who have died are of a semi-savage nature and do not attach any sentiment to the graves of their dead.” Its author considered individual headstones a waste of money and that “tribes” would not appreciate them.

Winston Churchill, when colonial secretary after the first world war, also said mass memorials would be adequate in Africa.